Our working understanding of the Cross and its significance to Christian life dates back to a few dusty old Theologians. St. Anselm who was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 1093; St. Thomas Aquinas who was born in 1225; and our dear old Protestant friend John Calvin.
If you went to Wikipedia to get a grip on this development you’d read this…..
St. Anselm speaks of human sin as defrauding God of the honour he is due. Christ’s death, the ultimate act of obedience, brings God great honour. As it was beyond the call of duty for Christ, it is more honour than he was obliged to give. Christ’s surplus can therefore repay our deficit. Hence Christ’s death is substitutionary; he pays the honour to the Father instead of us. Penal substitution the theology of the protestant reformation differs in that it sees Christ’s death not as repaying God for lost honour but rather paying the penalty of death that had always been the moral consequence for sin . The key difference here is that for Anselm, satisfaction is an alternative to punishment, “The honor taken away must be repaid, or punishment must follow.” By Christ satisfying our debt of honor to God, we avoid punishment. In the better known Calvinist Penal Substitution, it is the punishment which satisfies the demands of justice.
For Thomas Aquinas, the main obstacle to human salvation lies in our sinful human nature, which damns human beings unless it is repaired or restored by the atonement. In his section on humanity, he considers whether punishment is good and appropriate. He concludes that
1. punishment is a morally good response to sin: it is a kind of medicine for sin, and aims at the restoration of friendship between the wrongdoer and the one wronged.
2. “Christ bore a satisfactory punishment, not for His, but for our sins,” and
3. substitution for another’s sin is entirely possible.
And all of that is great to a point. The point being we live in a time, culture, and place that doesn’t buy into original sin, and that doesn’t really see sin as a problem unless it’s somebody else’s shortcomings and actions that have to be punished. We’re entirely too busy to reflect on our own lives, let alone the theology of the church’s past.
So what is a preacher to do on Holy Cross Sunday? Well maybe there is another way to get at this. If our brains won’t go there, maybe our hearts still will.
Jean Vanier wrote this:
Mary was there,
standing at the foot of the cross,
a sign of hope, of trust, of love,
she stood firm.
This silent woman of compassion
not fleeing from the pain.
Her experience of Jesus was so different
from that of Peter and the other disciples
who had seen his miracles
and witnessed his power and greatness.
They had followed Jesus because of his strength.
Mary’s first meeting with Jesus
was in the littleness of his body,
and in the littleness of her body.
Her experience of Jesus was so different.
Our way into this day may be through the broken heart of a mother.
Let me take you from the scene of Mary at the foot of the cross to another place and time; the early 1990’s and a jail in Southern California for young offenders. It’s Good Friday and the chapel is full of the life and energy of young men, each dressed in the same bright orange coveralls. The prison chaplain stands up and the room slowly falls into silence. And she begins to read . . . .
“ Today I invite you to picture yourself in Jerusalem on top of a hill. The sky is dark. It is cold. There are three crosses. Jesus is hanging with a rope around his waist to keep him from falling. Blood drips from his body, which now hangs limp. And Mary turns to you and says, “ It is over. I saw my son breathe his last breath. I saw so many hours of torture. Now he hangs there without breath. Now I understand what death is. …..”
A story of desolation, agony, and abandonment, told from a mother’s perspective. It’s a story all too familiar to the young men assembled in the chapel. And a question surfaces in the room: “ how did my own mother feel when she saw me arrested, sentenced, and taken away to prison?” For a long while the question hangs in the room, awaiting a response.
Then a young boy steps forward. His head shaved. He has dark brown eyes and sharp, high cheekbones. Clearly nervous, he shifts from side to side. But he wants to say something. And out it comes; “ I put my mom through a lot of things. She was sad to lose her son. I always used to be around her. She used to be like my big sister. That’s how we used to kick it.
Everything has changed now.” Suddenly he stops talking. His eyes are filling with tears. “ Man ! I look at my mom’s face on Sundays….I don’t know. I’m starting to get heartbroken !”
He beats his chest with his fist trying to catch his breath, push the lump back down his throat, his eyes dart about the room looking for some kind of help. Finally, he gives up and sits down.
Another boy walks forward. His voice cracks as he begins to speak “ I can’t describe the pain my mom feels. Her pain to me is like no other. The pain my mother feels is the same pain that is killing me. I see my mom go through some kind of agony every visit. I can see it in her eyes even though she would never tell me. Now that my life is in someone else’s hands it’s worse… I wish I could take away her misery, put happiness and joy back in her dreams. But all I can see is her pain – and it is killing me.
And on and on it goes, one by one, they sound out the empty places within themselves. For almost three hours these kids stream forward, crying out their loss, regret, and sadness. And then just as suddenly as it started the room falls back into silence. And after a time the chaplain says a simple prayer and then walks over and kisses the cross – and the orange suits begin moving one by one. With endless gestures – touching, caressing, kissing – they reverence the cross. In this place of abandonment and desolation they linger. And then it’s over.
The young men move from the Chapel to the yard under close escort from the guards. After all some of them are there because they have been charged and convicted of first degree murder. In silence they eat their meal from plastic trays. In silence the chaplain drives home – witness to something immensely sad and yet beautiful – a moment in time that touched the mystery of the crucifixion. The healing pain of the cross.
There is piece of art, a statue of the crucified Christ done in copper and stone. The single sculpture contains two crosses. One cross is small, a stick figure Jesus on it, done in weathered coppery metal.
The other cross is of dark stone, it stands behind the little crucifix but is six times larger. A cross behind the cross. The crucified God, the suffering God of Good Friday and Christian theology, but not only of Christian belief.
In Jewish theology as well there is the image of a God who suffers. Rabbi Haim, a 19th century Lithuanian rabbi wrote that one ought to pray not so much to alleviate one’s own suffering as to alleviate the immensely greater suffering of God, who suffers in all human misery, and in the general brokenness of the world.
In the rising into God’s suffering that occurs in prayer, the human finds his or her own suffering soothed in the divine suffering that is so much greater, so that our suffering becomes a
“ bitterness sweetened by bitterness.”
“ Bitterness sweetened by bitterness.” is surely an image for the Cross. Jesus’ suffering is not simply his own, but that of all humanity; and it is the also the suffering of God. And by some mystery that we will never fully comprehend, the suffering of Jesus is full, perfect, sufficient, and somehow complete. And by it we are restored and remembered as children of God and of one another. Perhaps it is only in the pain of this day that we truly recognize ourselves and one another.
We are God’s imperfect creatures – born capable of great beauty and wondrous deeds – born to pain and suffering – often beyond our understanding – often experienced in the very same life. We are mysteries even to ourselves. And into the mystery of life God has placed a cross – bitterness to sweeten bitterness – meaning, hope, and symbol of a love beyond and greater than us A love so raw and shocking that it can even heal the likes of you and me.
Hope born where in the eyes of the world there can be none – at the foot of the cross – in the face of death – Hope and faith are born – faith so strong that nothing can contain or overcome it – not even death.
For St. Anselm today and the Cross was about honor lost and honor restored. For St Aquinas it was about justice being done. For Calvin and the protestant reformation the Holy Cross was about punishment start to finish. But maybe for us as it was for Mary – as I’d argue it was for God and Jesus the Cross is about love. We still understand love. And even you and I will do the most outrageous things for Love. The Holy Cross of Jesus is just maybe the most outrageous thing God ever did, ever could do, to show us how deeply the divine loves us all.